Nutrition tips for Fitz’s Challenge: food and fluid on event day

October 20, 2018

Adjunct Associate Professor in Sports Nutrition Vicki Deakin takes us through her top tips for eating and drinking on event day.

Fitz’s Challenge has lots of hills and can be a long day on the bike. For riders in the longer routes, it is an endurance event. To enjoy your ride, and get the best out of the event, you should ride with care, adhere to an eating and fluid plan, and take the opportunity to rest and refresh at each checkpoint.

Unlike the Tour de France, there is no support crew following you to throw water on your head or hand you snacks and drinks! Although the roads are open, personal support vehicles are not permitted, so you will need to plan ahead for your food and fluid intake on the day.

All riders should carry emergency food and at least two bidons of fluid (your choice of beverage), irrespective of the route chosen and the availability of food, water and electrolytes at the checkpoints.

Many riders make the mistake of going out too fast and too hard in an effort to keep pace with other riders or set a personal best. There are two high-risk behaviours associated with fluid imbalance that can lead to adverse health effects.

  1. Overhydration (or hyponatraemia)

Drinking too much fluid is a risk factor for hyponatraemia, or low levels of sodium in the blood. It is not a common occurrence in cycling events compared to running events but still happens in long distance rides at high intensity and is more likely to occur in an event than a training ride, and has been reported in events lasting more than 4 hours.

Risk factors include excessive drinking of plain water or other low sodium drinks, low body weight, female sex, event inexperience, use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, unusually hot conditions or extreme cold temperatures. Sodium is the main electrolyte lost in sweat and the rate of loss is highly variable between individuals.

Symptoms are similar to some of the symptoms of dehydration – weakness, mental confusion, disorientation. Sometimes there are no symptoms. If severe, overhydration can result in loss of consciousness and even be fatal.

Recommendation to help prevent overhydration: Stop, rest, eat a variety of foods at the checkpoints (including salty and savoury foods), drink fluids containing electrolytes like sports drinks or take a sports electrolyte supplement. Electrolyte replacement is only part of prevention. More important is avoiding excessive fluid intake. Taking large amounts of sodium or salt (sodium chloride) is not a recommended preventive strategy and can be very risky for other physiological reasons.   

  1. Dehydration (hypohydration or hypernatraemia)

Drinking inadequate fluid is a risk factor for dehydration or hypernatraemia (high levels of sodium in the blood), heat stress, and ultimately heat stroke, which can be life-threatening. Dehydration is more common than overhydration, especially when conditions are extremely hot. Most participants in endurance events lose more fluid than they consume. The body can tolerate a small deficit in fluid without impairment of performance capacity. Major dehydration and performance deficits occur when you lose more than 2-3% of your body weight during the event.

Signs of early dehydration usually include excessive thirst so the signal is there to drink BUT do not guzzle copious amounts of plain water at once. Other early signs are headache, light-headedness, nausea (or vomiting) weakness, not sweating much and not peeing. As dehydration increases, the risk of heat stress and heat stroke increases. In heat stress, the thirst mechanism can be blunted or non-existent but other more serious symptoms are apparent (e.g. confusion, disorientation, dizziness, fainting, rapid pulse, rapid breathing, very pale, no sweating).

Recommendation to help prevent dehydration: Don’t wait until you are thirsty to have a drink. Adhere to the fluid intake plan you use in training. This is based on an estimate of your usual fluid losses and requirements during a training ride. Sports drinks are useful as a preventative measure, as they promote rapid uptake of fluid, electrolytes and carbohydrate at a faster rate than plain water.

In summary

The key to preventing a large fluid imbalance is to drink frequently and in small amounts and not exceed your fluid losses (or starting weight) over the day. Plan your fluid intake, practice during training, and don’t try something new on event day. Be prepared to make minor adjustments during the ride to accommodate ride conditions, distance and your level of fatigue. Ride at your own pace. Rest, eat and drink at the checkpoints.

Scales will be available at the registration desk at Stromlo Forest Park and at the Tharwa checkpoint, so you can check your weight, before, during and after your ride.

When to ask for help

If you experience gross fatigue and muscle weakness, severe headache, vomiting, disorientation or any of the other symptoms for overhydration and dehydration, stop and tell someone (another rider, a marshal, a motorist). Riders often confuse these symptoms with the normal physiological effects of high-intensity effort and fail to recognise the differences. Observe other riders around you for signs and symptoms. Support is close by. We have satellite communication, police motorcycles on patrol and support vehicles sweeping the routes.

Alcohol and caffeine

After finishing your ride, you will be given a voucher for a complimentary drink. Enjoy your beer or coffee but ensure you rehydrate first with water or an electrolyte drink. Do not use beer to rehydrate!

Even if you are well-hydrated, alcohol will have a diuretic effect, and large amounts of alcohol soon after exercise can both interfere with recovery and have a negative effect on the immune, endocrine and vascular systems.

We recommend you consume low alcohol beer and coffee after you have eaten and rehydrated with other fluids, and to follow your recovery nutrition plan (see our blog Nutrition for recovery after a training ride).

For more recommendations for event day, see our blogs Nutrition during a training ride and Nutrition for recovery after a training ride

References

For more detailed information, go to the article below written by the lead researcher in the area of Competition Fluid and Fuel requirements, Professor Asker Jeukenkrup from Loughborough University in the UK.

Jeukendrup, Asker E. (2011) Nutrition for endurance sports: Marathon, triathlon, and road cycling, J Sports Sci, 29:sup1, S91-S99.

Author profile:

(Adjunct) Associate Professor Vicki Deakin is a keen rider and a member of the organising committee for Fitz’s Challenge. She was the former Head of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Canberra and initiated the nutrition services at the Australian Institute of Sport and the ACT Academy of Sport in Canberra. She is co-editor, with Professor Louise Burke, of the reference textbook, Clinical Sports Nutrition, now into its 5th edition.